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Minneapolis cyclists battle for a place in traffic

Special thanks to Schmit Towing for the location and Chad Padelford, Ramsey Louder, and Sara Abdelaal for modeling.
Special thanks to Schmit Towing for the location and Chad Padelford, Ramsey Louder, and Sara Abdelaal for modeling.
Benjamin Carter Grimes

Last summer, David Briscoe got the call that every parent dreads. It was a nurse. We have your daughter.

Shaina had left her home in south Minneapolis that Saturday, a hot one punctured by rain, and joined her friends for an impromptu race headed north through downtown. Around 3 p.m., lagging behind the pack, she hurried through the intersection of Washington and Hennepin avenues against a red light.

The driver of an ice-blue SUV paused as the first group of riders passed, then tapped the accelerator into the clearing. Shaina hurtled head-first into the driver's side of the car, smashing the mirror. The bike's front tire was ripped from the frame.

Though she was wearing a helmet, Shaina suffered a severe brain injury. Her jaw snapped. As the internal pressure mounted, she lay motionless on the asphalt, with blood pooling around her mouth.

Shaina was rushed to the Hennepin County Medical Center and would spend several weeks in a coma. David spent the next eight months documenting the recovery process on CaringBridge, a blog for sharing updates on sick or injured loved ones. He watched as Shaina strained against the wires on her jaw, strained to speak and to touch people's hands.

Today, Shaina is conscious but confined to a wheelchair, unable to talk. For hours, she looks at her own Facebook page trying to piece together what happened. Hundreds of people, mostly fellow cyclists, have visited her in the hospital in the last year and keep coming — friends and strangers bound only by the instrument that they use for travel. They've made T-shirts and spoke cards and a bicycle in her honor.

Some were, and still are, motivated by anger. At 28, Shaina was considered the model of responsible riding. She criticized others for taking chances, for not wearing helmets or lights, and for biking while drunk. But the question of who's right and who's wrong in this seemingly endless war between bicyclists and drivers is beyond David's concern.

"Unfortunately, it's seeing somebody broken on the side of the road that brings us back to our sense of frailty," he says, "that reminds us we're all capable of wiping the smugness and arrogance off our faces when we're using the road."

On a snowy day in January, Betsy Hodges stands at a south Minneapolis street corner and removes her gloves. Although the temperature hovers around -5 degrees, the new mayor needs a better grip on her paper proclamation — a celebration of the city's bicycling community.

Those who ride year-round, she says, "are more resilient, more hearty, more Die Hard gritty, just plain tougher, and much better looking than the bicyclists from all those wimpier cities."

A small crowd of supporters smile beneath their helmets. It's only her second day in office, and already the mayor is reaffirming the city's campaign to increase the share of bicycle commuters from 4.5 percent to 15 percent by 2025 — an increase of 42,000 riders.

It's an ambitious goal, but only the latest declaration of rights for the city's bicyclists.

Until 1976 it was illegal — yes, illegal — for Minnesotans to ride in the street if a bike path was nearby. Those paths, however, were confined to parks and often poorly designed, some ending in random places, at least one obstructed by a light pole. Phil Voxland, a competitive cyclist who helped rewrite the law, remembers a bike path that ran along the back of a tennis court. "If someone stepped out of the court to fetch a ball," he says, "wham!"

Ask anyone who biked the streets in those years and you're guaranteed to hear stories of fear and loathing. Consider the extreme example of Joe Hoover, who works for the Minnesota Historical Society. As a teen, he rode in south Minneapolis while attending the Academy of Holy Angels. One day, he recalls, a boy opened a school bus window on Lyndale Avenue and pissed on him.

Rocks, bottles, even crutches — such flying objects became part of many a cyclist's commute. Chris Kvale, a well-respected frame builder who lobbied alongside Voxland, says, "I learned to be invisible."

The next generation has been less inclined to let the harassment and violence go unchecked. Ward Rubrecht, a writer and former City Pages staffer, faces the problem head-on, lecturing drivers when he's not blowing an air-horn in the offending car's window.

The city isn't sitting on its hands either. Minneapolis has been investing in protected bike lanes for years, though the risk of injury has not diminished. On First Avenue, for instance, one is forced to navigate the tiny space between a curb and a parked car. If the passenger door suddenly opens, the rider has two options: break his face, or dive onto the crowded sidewalk.

 

Minneapolis cyclists battle for a place in traffic
Benjamin Carter Grimes

Rubrecht has tried to avoid this problem altogether by riding in a car lane, but has encountered a new dilemma: being stopped and lectured by cops about staying in the bike lane. State law says bicyclists are indeed required to stay "as close as practicable" to the right-hand side of the road, except when "reasonably necessary to avoid conditions, including fixed or moving objects." For Rubrecht, the moving objects exception applies to the ever-present threat of a swinging car door.

"A judge may not agree with my interpretation," he says, "but I'd rather have to fight it in court than get doored again."

The next available option for bicyclists may be the worst: riding on the sidewalk. In July, a woman in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, crept up to the edge of a medical association parking lot in her SUV and stopped. Her eyes held left, on the traffic. It cleared momentarily, and she accelerated without looking right — crushing a bicyclist to death. City attorneys declined last week to charge the driver with manslaughter, instead issuing tickets for failure to use due caution and failure to yield.

In Minneapolis, at least, protected bike lanes will soon become a priority rather than a project-by-project battle. On August 14, Hodges unveiled her first budget, which calls for setting aside $750,000 for additional bike lanes and putting durable markings at historically dangerous intersections. In a few months, the city is expected to update its master bicycle plan, a roadmap for future street design. Currently the plan calls for 400 miles of new trails and boulevards, about half of which has been completed with the help of federal dollars.

Hennepin County is likewise focused on bike lane improvements. Next year, construction crews will remove a car lane of traffic on each side of Washington Avenue between Hennepin and Fifth Avenue South (and eventually all the way to the 35W Bridge), and replace it with protected bike lanes. Drivers and riders on that thoroughfare will soon have a two-foot-wide physical buffer between them.

"A lot of our system just consists of paint," says Simon Blenski, a bicycle planner with the Minneapolis Department of Public Works. "There needs to be that visual and tangible incentive to get someone biking who might not be comfortable otherwise."

Back in January, I heard the mayor's call for more riders, and as the weather began to warm, pushed my green Sekine out of the garage. It hadn't touched roadway since two summers past, when I lived in Chicago, but I began riding to the office and beyond with renewed energy. I threw myself into the streets, eager to see whether a tenderfoot could manage the strange terrain.

That brought me to the Midtown Greenway, one of the best examples this country has of an urban trail, though it's a place that provokes anxiety from even experienced bicyclists.

By day, Andrew Paule is a physicist. By night, he's the closest thing you'll find to a bicycling super hero.

He greets me with a smile and a handshake on a warm Sunday night, a time when most people are conserving energy for the week ahead. The 54-year-old Paule has opted instead to lead two volunteers, including myself, on a patrol of the Greenway for a group called Trail Watch. He unlocks the door to Freewheel Bike Shop and invites us inside to grab the essentials: yellow safety vests and a broom in case we encounter broken glass.

I'm with Paule for five minutes before he leaps into action. Back on the patio, he squints and searches a table for his helmet, which has disappeared. "Shit," he says under his breath, and hops on his old Bianchi, headed east in pursuit.

About 100 feet ahead, he catches his thief: a long-haired wino with a mustache who's carrying a bag of trash in the other hand. The man casually apologizes while his lady friend rolls her eyes. Paule chalks it up as a mistake and strolls back to Freewheel, grinning.

"If that's the worst that happens tonight," he says, "we'll be just fine."

It's still light by the time we hit the Greenway, which spans nearly six miles of a sunken railroad corridor in south Minneapolis. Construction began more than a decade ago, despite some fears that the project would attract roving criminal gangs.

There are the occasional muggings and shovings, and one instance of a thrown Molotov cocktail. In April 2013, a bike messenger was headed under the 15th Avenue bridge when he heard breaking glass. He kept moving but looked over his shoulder to see the width of the trail in flames. Police arrested two kids in connection.

Paule assures me that he's never felt threatened, even as he launches into a story about the time he got pelted with a baseball-sized rock. It bruised his chest and fell under his bike, popping one of the tires. He says he looked up to see a boy on the bridge, fleeing "like a ghost."

Soren Jensen, director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, credits Paule and his fellow patrollers with creating a safer environment. Cameras and blue phones and better lighting have also helped, but there's nothing quite like seeing other cyclists, pedaling at their own leisurely pace, to put you at ease.

"The Greenway is the ultimate protected bike lane," Jensen says. "This is not where you're going to get hit by a car."

It's also isolated from its urban surroundings. Freewheel is the only business down here, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Michael Andersen, a bicycling journalist from Portland who visited in July.

Andersen gave us props for building the Greenway, but also noted that, if he lived in Minneapolis, he'd rather commute through its neighborhoods. "When I ride," he wrote, "I want to enjoy the full culture of my city: houses, cafes, cats." The exit ramps left him with the impression that "I was on a tiny freeway."

That, too, is a perception Paule defies with every trip. He waves to just about everyone he sees. Most wave back. Some go so far as to stop him and thank him for the work he does, which includes pumping air in strangers' tires and picking up trash. Before the night ends, he spots a burned out lamp and stops us to file a report through the city's 311 app.

The sun is fading now, and the horizon turns black. We make our way to the nearby LRT trail, crossing over Hiawatha, and outrun the storm, following the Blue Line commuter train north. We're downtown in seven minutes. By the time we return, the clouds have moved south. Explosions of light fill the sky over Longfellow. The wind sweeps through the trees, piercing the remains of the day's humidity. It's nearing 10 p.m. and the path is clear except for a fat bearded man smoking a joint. He flashes a mischievous and knowing smile.

We pass in silence, and Paule tells me about how cycling runs in his family. His father, he remembers, used to ride an old English three-speed around the lakes.

"When I was young, adults didn't ride bikes," he says, adding with satisfaction, "Now they do."

 

Ben "S.K." Davies,  co-founder of  Rock-It Delivery
Ben "S.K." Davies, co-founder of Rock-It Delivery
Benjamin Carter Grimes

At an intersection downtown, Ben Davies balances atop his fixed gear while burning a Newport cigarette and checking his phone. The light turns green, and he barrels west on Washington, keeping pace with traffic and tapping into what he describes as the "algorithm" of the city.

A few minutes later, he turns left through a red light onto a one-way. A gray-haired guy in a white truck pumps his brakes, then accelerates with great fury. An explosion of the engine follows, but Davies is already out of the man's way. In another lane, he "skitches" by grabbing onto an SUV door handle for a boost of speed.

By the time I catch up, Davies has already delivered eight lunch boxes in his bag for Be'Wiched Deli. He sees me panting and smiles. With a voice like a gutter, he says, "I'm not even trying, man."

Legend has it that Davies is the fastest rider in the city. They call him "S.K." which stands for any number of things — skitch king, silly kangaroo, sloppy kisser. Playful monikers aside, what S.K. does is no joke. Bike messengers are the workhorses of the cycling community — expert and fearless explorers who know every blind spot and shortcut through the urban jungle.

For years, though, their numbers have been dropping. In Minneapolis in the 1980s, as many as 75 messengers coursed through the streets, carving out a niche in a world where architectural and legal firms needed signatures right away. Now, those same firms send most of their documents online. The pool of riders today hovers at 25.

Rather than accept defeat, Davies and his buddies started Rock-It Delivery, which is moving the messenger game into food — a commodity that still needs to get around quickly. What's more, for an $8 fee, the company will pick up almost anything you want and have it at your door in less than 45 minutes.

On the morning we met, Davies had just delivered groceries that included cat food and tampons. Each day takes him in unexpected directions, but the streets are the same. From 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. he rarely stops moving, and only then as a courtesy to pedestrians. He weaves around cars and other bicyclists, paces left and right at the crosswalks, then finds an opening and darts out of sight.

"I'm usually never in the bike lane," he says. "I'm in traffic — I am traffic."

Bicycling is his art. His stage is the hairy downtown. To ride with him is intimidating. He's a man in control — but he's not invincible.

Davies, 28, can recall three accidents as a messenger, one of which involved a Mini Cooper. The car hit him so low that he flew over the top and, though wearing a helmet, suffered a concussion. After exchanging information with the driver, he sped off to finish the job, but found that he couldn't make sense of the streets.

Still, the worst of his accidents was yet to come. Two years ago, he turned a corner near the Minneapolis Grain Exchange on Fourth Street and noticed too late the bus that was flying straight for him. He tried stopping but his foot unclipped from his pedal. He flew into a window, breaking four ribs and his hand, he says, and couldn't work for a month.

When he's delivering food, Davies wears a parachute-like backpack to keep the containers stable and warm. The pack is known as a Trash Bag and comes with compression straps and a removable, corrugated hard plastic bottom. It was designed by Andy Larson, a semi-retired messenger.

Larson rides occasionally for Rock-It and has no love for Davies's main competitor, the car couriers at BiteSquad, whom he describes as "a bunch of doughy guys wearing green shirts, lurking outside kitchens." In turn, I ask BiteSquad's co-founder, Kian Salehi, what he thinks of Rock-It, and he dismisses my question out of hand: "It's not something we concern ourselves with."

The animosity between these guys is palpable, but it has limits. Davies actually credits BiteSquad for helping to make third-party delivery services a viable option. Both are introducing new technology in Minneapolis so that they can stay in touch with kitchens remotely and let customers track their orders. "Historically," Salehi says, "we didn't know when it was gonna be ready or how it was gonna be ready, so the food quality suffered."

Davies and his crew of more than a dozen communicate through their phones with an app that functions as a radio. Most deliveries come through another app that's connected to the dozen restaurants and liquor stores with which Rock-It partners.

In 45 minutes, Davies easily makes three deliveries and covers seven miles of roadway. He's unfailingly courteous the whole time, even when someone stiffs him on a $106 order. With the midday rush behind him, he heads over to One on One, a bike studio and cafe close to Sex World, and plops down in the alleyway for a snack — more smokes and a Mexican Coca-Cola.

We're joined by Fred Eisenbrey, a 51-year-old who's been delivering documents for "dangerously close to 30 years," he says, back when it was a "solid, middle-class job." The pay, he admits, hasn't changed in decades; Davies is smart for adapting to the times.

The way both guys see it, the city would only need to make improvements to 26th and 28th Streets and they'd be fine with the entire system. They're used to riding their own way. As for the city's push to get new riders, Eisenbrey is skeptical. The efforts so far, he says, puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette, have only brought "one more class of douchebags on the road."

Suddenly the city's emergency test siren goes off. Davies jumps to his feet excitedly and tells us about his wolf-like dog, which mimics this primal sound at home. You should hear it, he says, and gives it a shot.

He tilts his head back, and howls.

 

Erik Noren, the animal behind  Peacock Groove
Erik Noren, the animal behind Peacock Groove
Benjamin Carter Grimes

Depending on whom you ask, Erik Noren's work is either brilliant or disgusting. He makes bikes for people like himself, he says — people who throw tradition and temperance to the wind. He named his shop Peacock Groove, after a bird that is "loud, obnoxious, and beautiful."

Plenty of guys make sleek, European-looking rides, but no one else in town — quite possibly no one else in the country — is repurposing the chopper and hot rod aesthetic. Whatever you think of the style, Noren's creations are hard to miss on the road, and therefore, he contends, safer.

"If you're looking at a whole farmyard full of birds and a peacock suddenly displays, you're gonna notice that peacock," he says. "And that's the whole point."

During a tour of his workshop, in the Seward neighborhood, he shows me a frame designed like a pack of Fruit Stripe gum and another that changes color at different angles. It's either red or green or brown, but always glossy and glittery. Then there's his prized possession: a wheel with the image of Bruce Campbell, from Evil Dead II, cutting his hand off with a chainsaw.

Strange as it sounds, the concept behind these bikes is a throwback to another era. Noren is reviving the 19th-century idea of bicycles as a fashion accessory.

At the Cycling Museum of Minnesota, above Recovery Bike Shop in Northeast, Juston Anderson, who owns much of the collection, says that in the 1880s, bike social clubs sprang up with their own trainers.

But those same bikes, in vogue during the Victorian era, were also incredibly dangerous. The original Penny-farthings — with their high front wheels and tiny back wheels — were nicknamed "boneshakers" for a very good reason. Later models with equal-sized tires were dubbed "safety bikes."

A map from 1899 shows that some of the earliest streets in both Minneapolis and St. Paul were set aside for cycling. Of course, the car would change all that. By the 1940s, Minnesota safety manuals reveal an almost hostile attitude toward riders, as though they were indisputably at fault for crashes with motorists. One highway patrol report from the 1960s says, "It is important that the youthful bike riders of today ... live to be traffic citizens of tomorrow."

Statistics paint a different picture. The 2013 Minnesota crash report shows that motorists are responsible for most collisions. Forty-three percent of all failure-to-yield tickets given out at accident sites go to drivers. Twenty-eight percent of those tickets go to bicyclists. And that's only taking into consideration the instances of record — when someone calls and sticks around long enough to talk to police.

Motorists tend to complain at public planning meetings that fewer car lanes means more traffic. But David Levinson, a transportation expert at the U of M, says this has not proven to be the case. Giving more space to bikes only entices more bicyclists to come onto the road — what he calls the "virtuous circle."

There are also events like Open Streets and organizations like the Minneapolis Bicycling Coalition, which declare pedal power loud and proud. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of fatalities in Minnesota is well below the national average and roughly half the number in Wisconsin. Perhaps a cliché, in this case, holds true: There is strength in numbers.

"It's just about going out there and continually riding," says Rachel Hiltsley, a community organizer with enough scar tissue to back up her bravado. "The more people just get out, the more people recognize this is a lifestyle."

Of course, there's only so much a light and a shiny frame can do to protect you from getting hit. There's nothing a frame builder can do to protect you from yourself.

"Bikers can be bad," Hiltsley says. "But they're not playing with anyone's life but their own."

Green curtains bleed into the darkness of an unfamiliar room. My eyelids flutter and struggle to stay open. I want badly to sit up, but cannot find the strength. Instead, I lift a hand and there appears a calm female voice at my side.

"You've had a bike accident," she says, softly. "Go back to sleep."

I do, but the next time I awake, the hospital becomes a little clearer. Panic sets in. The man in the room next to me sounds like he's detoxing. He screams for help, but no one comes to his aid.

The ER doctors at HCMC release me after a couple of hours, and a friend helps me into his car, then up the stairs of my apartment in the Stevens Square neighborhood of Minneapolis. As the pain medication wears off, I read my paperwork and survey the damage in the mirror: a broken collarbone, a sprained leg, a distended hip, a concussion, countless cuts, and a bundle of fractured ribs.

Alone now, I search for clues. My memory of the night ends as I leave Liquor Lyle's bar after two too many drinks. Beyond that, all I see are still shots of emergency lights and the belly of an MRI machine.

I call Minneapolis police for help, but there's no report. Only a 911 call that came in shortly after midnight on May 28. It lasts 76 seconds, and no names are offered up. A man claims to have heard someone calling out for help and found a woman standing over my body on Colfax Avenue. The dispatcher asks if I was hit by a car. "No," the voice says. "He just went down."

At Regions Hospital in St. Paul, an orthopedic surgeon studies my x-rays with suspicion and asks whether I'm sure I wasn't hit by a car. Honestly, I don't know. I don't even know where my bike is.

Later, I would share the incident with Brent Fuqua, a former journalist and junkie who runs Recovery Bike Shop, and he confesses that bicycle booze-cruising is common. He sees the damage in his repair shop. His business partner, Seth Stattmiller, overhears our conversation, so I show him the scar on my shoulder. Six screws were needed to bolt a steel plate onto bone.

"You're lucky," he says. "It could have been much worse."

My route home that night had included crossing two busy avenues: Lyndale at West 22nd, and Franklin at Pillsbury.

Yes, I tell him. Imagine if I had made it to those busy streets.

He does — we all do — and the room goes silent.

Six weeks after the accident, I returned to Colfax to inspect the road and was greeted by a giant pothole. Then something familiar caught my eye. I looked to my immediate right, and there it was: my green Sekine.

The EMTs must have taken the key from my pocket and chained the bike to the sign. It had rusted some and the brakes had jammed up. I wiped the drops of rain from the freshly torn seat.

Finally, I pushed the bike back out onto the street and began the long walk home, watching for every driver, every rider, every crack in the road.


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